Paris:- Tuesday, 27. February 1996:- In France, food and drink must be synonymous with fun, otherwise what were many tens of thousands of Parisians doing mobbing the Agricultural Salon today? Of all the salons and expos I've been to in the past year, no other has so crammed the monster Porte de Versailles Expo centre.

For all that, the first thing I saw inside the gates was an ordinary black and white cow. Sort of 'parked' in the parking lot. The next thing I saw, from a window of the press centre in Hall 1, was a huge bull. Really huge, bigger than many small French cars. Even inside the press centre there was a smell - it takes me way back - of inside a barn. Sort of warm and sweet, and... barny. Not bad at all.

Just think of France as a farm dedicated to feeding a big belly that is called Paris; that is 730,000 farms to feed the some 12 million in the Ile de France area, and every farm has sent a representative here today just to make sure no Parisian tries to walk off with a cow.

Why Parisians are so interested in what food looks like before they see it in their marchés is no mystery: they used to see it daily in the centre of town before Les Halles was demolished, and they want to be sure that cows are not merely TV advertising fancies.

Back in the press centre, I may as well reel off some more numbers. About a million people in France are actively raising animals or growing something edible, to feed a population of about 60 million. Other agro-industry enterprises employ 135,000 workers; so that still makes roughly 60 consumers for every producer. But French farmers are not content with that; they export as well - to the tune of 200 milliard francs worth a year ($400 billion), which puts them in the number one spot in Europe and number two behind the United States. The entire food-basket is worth 647 milliard francs ($1,290 billion). With my pocket calculator I make this to be, in human terms, 20.40 francs per person per day. For three meals of course.

(My first figure was 2.40 francs per person per day and I thought this was a bit low, so I looked up 'milliard.' In French and anglo-English: it is 1000 million; not a US 'billion.' A US 'trillion' equals a GB 'billion.' Let's not bother ourselves with quadrillion, okay?)

Outside of the press centre and its mind-boggling numbers, there were mind-boggling numbers of the eating public. They had come to see 1200 exhibitors and 1500 high-class animals; cows alone numbering 782, representing 23 breeds. These, and all the others, are here for beauty and popularity contests. Some particularly large brown bulls were right outside the press centre as I picked up all this extremely interesting information. For example, it says here, that there are more Normandy cows in Colombia than in Normandy. Colombia? I wonder whether there might not be more Normandy cows in Normandy than Normans.

Back in Paris, many of these prize-winning animals will be auctioned during the Salon - some to the 10,000 visitors from all parts of the world. I saw some handy-size gigantic rabbits that might be easier to take home than a 1500 kilo bull, but I suppose there are tastes in these matters. Not knowing where to begin my tour, I headed vaguely towards the regional specialties, in Hall 3. Before going far - not more than ten metres - I ran into these... cows? Beefs. The sign said 'Charolaise' and they were a bit larger than huge - and they had this hair, curly and blond. There were a lot of them, and they were eating lunch and did not appear to mind much that the crowd was... walking on their hay. They looked too sweet to mind. They might have been hungry.

The cows took away my steam. Just inside the door of Hall 1 and I was worn out by cow beauty! I don't think I've ever eaten Charolaise beef, but I vaguely remember that it is supposed to be like those beer-drinking beefs the Japanese golfers like to have. After I fought my way through several halls, to the regional specialties hall, I was too crowd-crazed, and cow-spoilt, to even try a bit of sausage. Or champagne. Or cheese.

In a daze, I decided to check out the 'regional specialties' of the Ile de France - the Paris region; wondering if they might be pizza, McDos, or oriental. There was a big crowd of what looked like bigwigs, inside a white picket fence, surrounded by thousands of people trying to get past hundreds of rubberneckers trying to watch the bigwigs toasting each other about something or other. The bigwigs looked like they had been toasting, before trying the 'regional specialties.'

Around the side of the Ile de France stand, towards the back, it looked as if a local specialty is pickled little strawberries. One stand further back - away from the party up front - had a glass case, in which there were two ostrich chicks. This stand really was displaying an Ile de France badge - but ostriches? Two of the breeders had 77-department addresses, so I guess they qualified for Ile de France. Nice to know that Paris is also famous for the 'regional specialty' of ostrich. It can not be a well-known fact.

By now you are probably wondering about the specialties Helix Aspersa and Allium. Since the National Institute of Agricultural Research - the Inra - is having its 50th anniversary about now, I stopped by their stand to pick up a catalogue of their publications, to see if there was any light reading that might dispel some of my ignorance about things agricultural.

There is. On page 53, the title, 'The Snail: Biology and Rearing of Helix Aspera,' on page 58, the title, 'Vegetatively Propagated Edible Allium,' described as covering all aspects of garlic, and on page 67, I thought, 'Intra- and Intercellular Communications in Plants' might be interesting. On the other hand, around Paris and its racetracks, the title, 'Screening for Horse Doping' might be useful. You can check out the Inra's catalogue online at http://www.inra.fr/ - most of their titles are in French, but there some in English as well. They also have video cassettes, slides, and CD-ROMs available, as well as audio CDs. Only one of these though; the title is 'Entomophonia - Chants d'Insects,' and it accompanied by an illustrated 215 page book.
I might have covered some distance today, but I did not cover much space. In the next few days I expect to visit Hall 4 to see the seafood, on its first appearance at the Salon; go through the 'regions' more thoroughly, and try to be present for the opening of the 'March Beer' barrels, for the first time, by 17 French breweries on Friday, 1. March.

Also on Friday, the 'food' Halls 3 and 4, will be open until dawn, for the 'Grand Fete' of the regions, for a special entry fee of 15 francs. One of the big events of this evening will be a giant 'Cooking Contest,' featuring major chefs from all over France. Visitors are invited to taste, buy, dine and.... Party!

That alone sort of sums up France and Paris: eat, drink, and party until dawn. Without agriculture, it would be on an empty stomach and thirsty.

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